Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say: A Lesson in Clear Communication

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By Olympia Duhart

In my legal research and writing class, I spend a great deal of time trying to teach my 1Ls to steer clear of ambiguity in their communication.  At the core, I offer them simple and familiar advice: Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Seems like a lesson Ohio Gov. John Kasich needs to learn. Last week, Ohio State Sen. Nina Turner said the Republican governor made an ambiguous – potentially explosive – comment to her when she offered to help assemble a racially diverse cabinet.

The governor’s response to her offer: “I don’t need your people.”

For Turner, it was unclear whether Kasich’s comments were dismissive of her constituents (she is a Democrat) or her ethnic group (she is black).  Turner said she was “kind of perplexed” by the governor’s comments.

She’s not the only one. The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus has criticized Republicans in the Kasich administration and the Ohio legislature for failing to place people of color in key positions.

According to POLITICO, Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols confirmed that the governor did tell Turner he didn’t need her “people.” However, the spokesman said Kasich’s comments were intended to be a rejection of partisan Democrat support.  “What he meant was, ‘Your people are Democrats, we don’t need them on our cabinet,’” Nichols insisted. “He said it referring to partisan Democrats who don’t agree with reducing taxes and reducing spending.”

Even if Kasich intended to reject Democratic involvement, such isolationism is disheartening from a governor who represents both Republican and Democrat constituents. With the push to relax the ranting as of late and a call from both sides to build consensus, one would hope a state leader would not be so firmly committed to excluding different views and voices.

Then there is that other reading of Kasich’s ambiguous comments.

Unfortunately for Kasich, his hiring record so far doesn’t suggest he’s in a rush to put minorities in his cabinet.  As of February 1, Gov . Kasich’s cabinet appointments hardly demonstrated a commitment to diversity. His spokesperson reported that the governor’s office had made offers to black candidates, but not had any luck recruiting one.  Of the 20-plus appointments Kasich has made since he took office Jan. 10, all have been white. He has not been able to find a single qualified person of color in the entire state to serve on a cabinet. Only five of his appointments are women. Ohio hasn’t had an all-white cabinet since 1962; at the time, it was under Democrat Michael DiSalle.

Kasich said he continues to seek qualified minority applicants, but is committed to hiring people who share his vision and are “the best and the brightest.”

As SALT continues to pursue one of its core missions of ensuring that the legal profession reflects this country’s diversity, it is disappointing that an all-white state cabinet in 2011 can be defended on such grounds. The emphasis on quality at the perceived expense of diversity implicit in this defense is something we’ve all heard before.  The truth is that diversity does not translate to a reduction in candidate qualifications. Yes, Virginia, a minority candidate can be qualified for the position he or she seeks.

Kasich’s comments may have been aimed at partisan politics as usual, but his poor choice of words has drawn attention to a glaring absence of racial diversity in his cabinet. Now, people are paying attention.  And that’s both the beauty and burden of the power of words – whether the speaker is engaged in lofty rhetoric or bitter rants, people listen.

During the month of February, the SALTLAW will be featuring posts on the theme of Rhetoric and Ranting. We want to examine the power of words, their impact on the law, and their reach into the academy. We also want to consider how words promote or disrupt access to justice in the community. This is a message worth learning whether you are a first year law student or a new state governor.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say.